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How horse therapy helped Arkansas girl speak again

Riverlyn Scrimshire was diagnosed with a speech disorder weeks before her dad died in the line of duty. A horse helped her speak again.

PEARCY, Ark. — At the start of 2020, Rachel and Brent Scrimshire found themselves asking therapists how to approach treating a speech disorder diagnosed in their 2-year-old daughter Riverlyn.

"She was diagnosed with apraxia of speech," said Rachel. "It's a neuromotor disorder where her brain has complications telling her mouth how to move."

A month later, Rachel and her two children found themselves facing this challenge without their father.

Brent Scrimshire, an officer with the Hot Springs Police Department, was shot and killed that March after pulling a couple over in a traffic stop.

"You can imagine a two-and-a-half-year-old very upset only having about five to seven words in her vocabulary," Rachel said. "Going through that and then going through her grief and only having five to seven words was kind of hard on her and myself."

Rachel said she watched her daughter go into a shell after her father passed away.

In the years that followed, Riverlyn traveled across the state and tried different therapies and treatments.

Riverlyn's first brush with horse therapy was in Benton, but progress was slow and the commute was long.

Amid the darkness, the Scrimshires found the Sunshine Therapeutic Riding Center (STRC) in Pearcy, where Katja Summerlin was a year into getting the facility off the ground. 

STRC specializes in hippotherapy, the growing practice of pairing people with horses to treat various ailments and disabilities.

"We started last year," Summerlin said. "It was kind of a struggle for me to commit to this because I knew going in, it's a high-cost business."

The Scrimshires knew that horse therapy was not an exact science— different horses have different gaits or ways of walking that can send different signals to different riders.

It took some trial and error before the little girl, silenced by her grief, paired up with a grieving old horse named Steeler.

"We heard about him [when we picked him out] because he had just apparently lost a pasture buddy and needed a new home," Summerlin said.

The girl and her new equine friend started strolling together in a sandy arena last summer, until one day the counselors decided to move to the nearby field.

"As soon as that movement started to be different with the harder surface, I kid you not it was like somebody turned the tap on," said Summerlin. "It just was a waterfall of babbles and words and it just started pouring out of her."

Rachel was overjoyed by the surprising breakthrough.

"It was just so clear," said Rachel. "There were more words, fluid, the pronunciation. All of that, she just took off. And I'm like, 'wow.'"

This summer, Riverlyn seemed to easily express what she would like to do. She confidently threw her leg over the saddle and carried a pretty well-schooled posture or "seat" while walking with Steeler.

"I would not believe it if I didn't see it," added Summerlin.

Riverlyn will start kindergarten in a few months and her therapists said her apraxia has gone from severe and profound to mild.

Steeler's gait unlocked the words inside the little girl.

"He is so sweet, especially it seems like with her," said Summerlin of the horse and rider pair. "Him and Riverlyn have a special bond."

"She was angry, sad, and upset," says Rachel. "Through being able to verbalize what she wants and needs, and then just riding the horse, her mood completely changed, and she's my old Riverlyn again."

It's part neuroscience, part new-age spirit—  but no matter how you mix it, it seems like magic.

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